New Wasserstein play features Swarthmore in a supporting role

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

“I’m not a real person. I go to Swarthmore.” So proclaims a character in Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein’s new play, “Third”, currently in previews at Lincoln Center’s Newhouse Theater in New York.

The play concerns Laurie Jameson, a middle-aged literature professor at an elite New England college (which seems rather Amherst-like, except in location), who is having a rather dramatic midlife crisis. A jock in her Shakespeare class by the name of Woodson Bull III (or “Third”) has submitted an exceptionally good paper on “King Lear”, and she doesn’t believe he could have written it. Her father has Alzheimer’s, her Swattie daughter isn’t quite meeting her expectations, and her best friend has breast cancer. As her life seems to implode, she has to question many of the assumptions she has made. Despite her prejudices, she remains a very sympathetic figure.

The play’s mostly gentle satire on the academic life, particularly the gender studies field, is on target, and occasionally hilarious. Laurie’s most recent book is entitled “Girls Will Be Boys: Emasculating Tropes in Literature”, and there is a running joke about the memoirs of Pinky, an Aboriginal lesbian. Of course, it turns out that Woodson Bull III is not at all the “walking red state” Laurie assumed him to be: he’s not especially privileged, not stupid, and not even quite a Republican. As Third (who Laurie insists on calling “Woody”) says, it will probably be the only time in his life that he will ever be the Other, as his classmates sign a petition for a clothing-optional dorm and burn paper-mache missiles on the main lawn.

The Swarthmore connection is small but important. Emily, Laurie’s daughter, is a Swarthmore freshman. She is not particularly politically engaged, and won’t join her mother to yell at the TV through the lead-up to the war in Iraq (the play is set during the 2002-2003 academic year). Swarthmore doesn’t actually seem quite the ideal place for her, as she quickly finds a Philadelphia bank teller boyfriend, and “takes some time off” in Trenton. “I’m kind of tired of smart people,” she confesses.

Though it isn’t fair to fully review the production in this early stage (it opens on October 24; the Gazette attended a preview on Sunday), it is in very good shape and boasts an excellent cast, including Dianne Wiest as Laurie, Jason Ritter as Woodson Bull III, and Gaby Hoffman as Emily. The work includes several long, gripping monologues, mostly lectures and classroom presentations in which the audience serves as the class. This form seemed ideal for the 299-seat Newhouse Theater, and might not be as effective in a larger venue. The production design was restrained and realistic, and the lighting design particularly effectively created atmosphere in the absence of large set pieces.

The production is produced by Lincoln Center Theater and directed by Daniel Sullivan. Wasserstein has often written about feminism and gender issues in a realist, accessible style. She is known for “The Heidi Chronicles”, for which she won the 1989 Pulitzer Prize in Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play, “The Sisters Rosenweig”, and the screenplay for “The Object of My Affection.” Wasserstein was present at the performance on Sunday, as was director and writer Nora Ephron. The entire run is currently sold out, though last-minute cancellations are a possibility (and $20 student ticket are available whenever any tickets are). Even if it weren’t for the small Swarthmore connection, it is a perfect work for the Swarthmore community, and hopefully will be produced in Philadelphia soon.

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